At Wednesday’s convocation ceremony, Arts graduate Tracy Bear received the University of Alberta’s highest honour bestowed upon graduating doctoral students – the Governor General’s Gold Medal. The combination of outstanding academic standing, cumulative scholarly achievement, and Bear’s dissertation, Corporeal Sovereignty Through the Praxis of an Indigenous Eroticanalysis, propelled her to the top of the graduating class of 2016.
Hearing about the award, the first thing Bear thought of was her family. “I am so blessed to be raised and nourished by such strong, resilient Indigenous women like my mother, sisters, aunties and my kokum (my grandmother),” she says, adding that while her mother is no longer here, “the first thing I wanted to do was to call her – she would have been so proud.”
Bear’s scholarly practice found its expression in three different programs while at the University of Alberta: a BA from the Faculty of Native Studies; a BEd in Art History, Criticism and Conservation in 2007; and now, a PhD in English and Film Studies. Julie Rak, Associate Chair of Graduate Studies in EFS, describes Bear’s thesis as brilliant, and adds that her dissertation defense was equally extraordinary. “Tracy planned and worked with members of her family and community [on its realization],” says Rak. “It was a landmark moment for the graduate program in English, showing me where we the program needs to head as my department, faculty and university move towards understanding how to be on this land.”
“If this is my body, where are my stories?”
This is the question that Bear explored in her thesis, arguing for what she calls “the recovery and practice of an Indigenous eroticanalysis as a reclamation of sovereignty over our Indigenous bodies.” Articulations of sensuality, sexuality and gender, contemporary Indigenous art and decolonization practices ground Bear’s research and influence her creative practices. The journey has been far from solo, says Bear, adding that she has been actively sustained and encouraged by her friends and “Indigenous sisters.”
A self-described Nehiyaw’iskwew, or Cree woman, Bear has long been active in projects reflective of her background. As a member the National Collective of Walking With Our Sisters (WWOS) – a memorial art installation comprised of more than 1,763 pairs of embroidered moccasin vamps (tops) created in honour and remembrance of the more than 1,400 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in Canada – Bear was instrumental in bringing the exhibit to Edmonton in 2013.
She is also the academic lead on the forthcoming UAlberta Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) – Indigenous Canada, a 12 lesson, in-depth study of the historical and contemporary relationships between Aboriginal peoples and newcomers. A cross-appointed assistant professor with the Faculty of Native Studies and the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, Bear will be teaching a course called Indigenous Women and Feminisms in the 2017/18 academic year, and is working with Native Studies Associate Professor Kim Tallbear and Kirsten Lindquist, Aboriginal Governance Coordinator, on a Research-Creation Laboratory series called Tipi Confessions, a tri-annual series of erotically themed storytelling and performance-based shows.
In accepting the Governor General’s Gold Medal, Bear acknowledges that the significance of the award goes beyond the personal. “I appreciate the university’s recognition and validation of the value and significance of Indigenous knowledges,” she says. “It’s an honour.”